St. Ailbe of Emly

6 April 23 | Posted in Animals, Events, History, Saints, Supernatural

The name Ailbe is derived from the Irish words ail (rock) and beo (alive). Ailbe itself was the name of a divine war dog guarding the boundaries of Leinster.

 Ailbe was born to a maidservant in the house of Cronan, Lord of Eliach in County Tipperary. Cronan, for reasons unknown, disapproved of his birth and ordered the baby exposed to “dogs and wild beasts, that he might be devoured.” But, instead, the boy was hidden under a rock where he was found and nursed by a she-wolf. The wolf raised him with her own cubs.

Long afterwards, when Ailbe was a bishop, an old she-wolf being pursued by a hunting party ran to the bishop and laid her head upon his breast. Ailbe ordered the hunters not to harm her. Ailbe protected the wolf, and every day she would come to his hall to eat with him.

The Green Children of Woolpit

23 December 22 | Posted in Events, History, Supernatural

English folklore is filled with green-themed stories: the Green Man, the Green Knight, Robin Hood, Jack-in-the-Green, and the Green Children of Woolpit. What’s even more interesting is that descendants of one of the green children may still be living in Suffolk, England.

The legend of the Green Children had its start during the reign of Stephen (1135-1154) or Henry II (1154-1189) in the Village of Woolpit in Suffolk, England. One fall, two reapers working near the old wolf pits (deep ditches dug to trap wolves) discovered two lost children, a brother and sister. The children had green-tinged skin, wore strange clothes and spoke an unfamiliar language. They were hungry, but both refused to eat regular food like bread.

The villagers brought them to the local lord, Sir Richard de Calne (or Caine), who agreed to take care of them. Sir Richard offered them food but they continued to refuse to eat. When the children found some green beans in his garden they immediately ate them.  Richard de Calne took the children to a local church to be baptized. The boy died soon afterward of an unknown illness. Prior to death he went through a period of severe melancholy and lethargy. The girl, his older sister, regained her health and eventually lost her green-tinged skin. After she learned English, she told people about her origin:

“We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with particular veneration in the country that gave us birth. We are ignorant (of how we arrived here); we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund’s, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields while you were reaping. The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sun-rise, or follows the sunset. Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.”

Agnes’ story was recorded by two 12th century chroniclers:  Ralph of Coggestall (died c. 1228) and William of Newburgh (1136-1198).  Ralph of Coggestall was the 6th abbot of Coggestall, a Cistercian monastery about 26 miles from Woolpit.  He recorded his account of the green children in Chronicon Anglicanum (English Chronicle) around 1189 and claimed to have heard the story from Sir Richard de Calne himself. The Chronicon Anglicanun was written between 1066 and 1223.  William of Newburgh was a monk and canon at the Augustinian Newburgh Priory in Yorkshire.  He includes the green children in his main work, Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs). His version reportedly came from many “trustworthy sources.” 

The story of the green children is mentioned in William Camden’s Britannia, published in 1586, and in two works from the early 17th century, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and Bishop Francis Godwin’s fictional tale, The Man in the Moone (1638).  The writers speculated that the children were inhabitants of another world, either subterranean or extraterrestrial.

Why were the Green Children green?  This has been an unsolved mystery. The most plausible explanation is that the children were suffering from hypochromic anaemia, formerly known as chlorosis, which is caused by malnutrition and poor diet. The condition results in giving a green tint to the skin.  This would explain why the girl, Agnes, lost her green skin over time as her diet changed.

Another idea, based on their early insistence on eating only green beans, is that their bodies were actually suffering from a condition called “favism” which is an allergy to bean plants. Favism attacks the kidneys and can result in a greenish pallor.  It can be lethal, which explains the death of the boy.

A third explanation is that the children were poisoned by arsenic by an evil relative.  Arsenic poisoning can tint the skin green. The green children came to be associated with the dark fairytale, Babes in the Woods, first published in 1595. It told the story of a wicked uncle who hires a couple of thugs to kill his orphaned niece and nephew so he can inherit their estate. The killers take pity on the children and abandon them in a forest, where they will get lost and eventually perish.

Who were the Green Children? There are lots of theories, both plausible and fantastic. They were beings from outer space.  They were part of the Tuatha De Danann, a tribe of “shining beings” who were driven underground by the warlike Celts. The most likely theory is that they were children of Flemish immigrants who lived in the village of Fornham St. Martin, just north of Bury St. Edmunds, a town about ten miles away from Woolpit. In 1173, Fornham St. Martin was the site of a battle between Henry II and his son, Young Henry.  Flemish mercenaries fought on the side of the rebels, and when they were slaughtered by the royalist forces, the Flemish settlers were probably targeted. If the children fled into nearby Thetford Forest, the dense canopy must have seemed like permanent twilight to them. Their town was close to the River Lark, which may have been the river Agnes described in her story. The area around Bury St. Edmunds is rife with underground flint mines, and the children may have wandered in these passages until they found themselves near Woolpit. The only problem with this theory is that living only 10-15 miles away, it’s hard to image that none of the Woolpit villagers, and especially Sr. Richard de Calne, had never been exposed to the Flemish language or dress.

The young boy, unnamed, died shortly after being baptized.  His older sister was baptized as “Agnes” and lived in the household of Sir Richard de Calne.  When Sir Richard died around 1188, she was probably in her late teens or early 20s. She had a reputation of being “very wanton and imprudent.”  William of Newburgh, who wrote one of the first accounts of the Green Children, said that she married a lawyer from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, about 40 miles from Woolpit.  He said that she was still living when he wrote his account.  Her husband may have been Richard Barre (1130-1202) who was a lawyer, clergyman and scholar.  He was an ambassador for King Henry II, and later worked for King Richard I. The couple had at least one child.

Local Suffolk folk singer and writer, Bob Roberts, wrote about Agnes in his 1978 book, A Slice of Suffolk. “I was told there are still people in Woolpit who are descended from the green children, “ he wrote, “but nobody would tell me who they were!”







Lussi Long-Night

13 December 22 | Posted in Animals, History, Saints, Supernatural

The folklore surrounding December 13th has held a special place in Norway since the Viking Age. It was thought to be the longest night of the year and the beginning of the Yule season.  It was a dangerous night, since it was ruled by a female spirit, a vette or vaettir, called Lussi (“Light”). She was the mother or leader of the vettir (spirits) and other Huldrefolk (supernatural beings), and kin to Huldra (forest spirits), the nisse (gnomes), trolls, and even to the Norse gods.  Lussi is associated with the Asgardsrei, the Riders from Asgard; the Julereia, the Yule Riders, and the Wild Hunt, who are said to appear on this night. People did not want to be outside when they went past, because folk legends told of people being snatched up and carried away to some faraway place. Other unwary travelers disappeared forever.

Part of Lussi’s spiritual task was to make sure people completed their chores before the Yule season, which was a holy time when people were not supposed to work. If the work didn’t look like it would be done, the household could have gotten some form of punishment from an angry Lussi. Everything had to be done by December 13th, especially spinning, brewing beer and ale, cleaning, taking care of the animals—domestic and wild–threshing, slaughtering, and baking. Special cakes needed to be made.  These cakes, called “Lussi-cats” (Lussekatter) are baked with saffron, an imported spice that’s a yellow color, symbolizing gold, light, sun—all associated with both the goddess Freya and Lussi. The cakes are formed like two spirals, and a raisin or other dry fruit would serve to give the impression of cat’s eyes, or sight in the dark. They were also ancient Nordic circular symbols of the sun. It was important to have these cakes ready for Lussi, and they were eaten by everyone in the household. 

This was also the night when animals would gossip, and talk to one another about how the people treated them in the past year. If someone had mistreated or abused any animal, vengeance would come from Lussi and her retinue of spirits! So the barn and stable had to be clean and comfortable, and the livestock given an extra treat of food, or a Lussibit, so they would give her a favorable report.

Over the centuries, as Christianity became more and more assimilated into Norwegian culture, “Lussi” became “Lucia” a saint whose name also means “light.”  The celebration of St. Lucia, and the household or town processions, are now linked with the Winter Solstice, the darkest night of the year. The young woman representing St. Lucia symbolizes the bringer of light to the dark.  She wears a candled wreath, which was traditionally worn as a crown decorated with evergreen lingonberry branches. She is accompanied by young girls as her handmaidens, dressed in white and holding candles. The morning of St. Lucia Day the oldest daughter of the household brings her parents and siblings coffee and pastries for breakfast.  These saffron-spiced cakes are called St. Lucia Buns, or Lussekatter. 

I was trying to imagine Lussi Long-Night and St. Lucia celebrations by my own ancestors in Norway in the 18th and 19th centuries and earlier.  Living on farms, they experienced the long dark nights of winter. Pitch darkness can be very scary, and quickly becomes the domain of monsters and evil. The members of the household must kept busy indoors tending the fire, eating, drinking, sewing and telling stories. On the longest night, in her role as light bringer, the eldest daughter might have led a procession from the house to the stabbur (storage house), barn and stable, and around the boundaries of the farmstead to protect it from evil. In earlier times invocations may have been to Freya, a goddess associated with love, warfare, magic, death, gold, and cats. In the last two centuries St. Lucia has held sway, but I can still feel Freya and Lussi in the night.



Saint Ghislain and the Eagle and Bear

5 September 22 | Posted in Animals, Arts and Letters, Events, History, Saints, Supernatural

Saint Ghislain (died October 9, 680) was a confessor and hermit in Belgium.  He lived during the reign of King Dagobert I (605-639 A.D.), King of the Franks and one of the last great kings of the Merovingian dynasty.

The name of Ghislain comes from the Germanic words gisal, “hostage,” and lind “sweet.” St. Ghislain is frequently portrayed with a bear or bear cub beside him. According to legend, King Dagobert was out hunting in a forest and was chasing a bear. She sought refuge with Ghislain and he protected her from the hunting party.  The bear later showed Ghislain the place where he should establish a monastery.

The legend is sweetly told in the 1854 article, “A Few Words About Bears,” by S. French in an 1854 edition if the New York Journal of Romance, General Literature, Science and Art.

“One day, as King Dagobert, who reigned over France and Belgium, was hunting in the forests of Hainault, he strayed from his company in the pursuit of a large bear, which, knowing what it was about, sought refuge in the hermitage of Saint Ghislain. The saint was at his devotions, and did not look around. The bear squatted beside a basket, in which the hermit left his sacerdotal ornaments. Soon after, King Dagobert entered the hermitage, and was not a little startled and surprised to see the monstrous animal lying at the feet of an old man engaged in prayer.”

Saint Ghislain turned at the noise made by the prince’s entrance. He then perceived what had occurred, and begged the life of the bear. Dagobert immediately recognized the man of God, whose name was celebrated throughout the country, and accorded him that which he had solicited; and after embracing him, and praying him to rely upon him for countenance and support, he retired and left the Saint with his bear. “

“No sooner had the King departed than the bear arose, took up the basket with its contents, and, laden with this precious burden, fled away towards the place where she had left her young. She knew that by so doing she would be able to draw thither the hermit who protected her. The spot was a charm and picturesque one, afterwards called Ursidong or the Bears Grove, situated in the forest on the border of the river Haine, which has given its name to Hainault.” 

 “As the bear calculated, Ghislain followed her; but, impelled by a desire to join her little ones, she went so fast that the Saint in a very short time lost sight of her. He found himself bewildered in the midst of the vast forest, where the foot of man had never yet traced a path, when an eagle appeared before him, fluttering to attract his attention. Ghislain, seeing something extraordinary in all of this, suffered himself to be guided by the eagle, and presently arrived at the Grove of the Bear.”

 “This spot he found to be so attractive and convenient, that he transported thither his dwelling. His new friends, the eagle and the bear, never quitted him. Numerous anchorites, drawn by reports of these marvels, came and placed themselves under the discipline of the saint. They built a grand monastery, around which, in the process of time, grew a town, which was called Saint Ghislain.”

 “Up to the end of the last century, when the monastery was suppressed, an eagle and a she bear were constantly kept there, in memory of the saint who died in 670.”



Saint Thecla the Evangelist

A healthy number of saints’ stories feature people who were “called to chastity” or to a relationship with Christ vs. marriage. All kinds of fantastic legends and tales ensued about the lengths to which these people would go to avoid marriage and connubial sex. Ultimately, they were all successful in their quest to avoid sex with members of the opposite sex. They ended up living alone (rarely) or with a same-sex companion (often) or same-sex community in a wilderness setting (usually).

St. Thecla the Evangelist is one of those saints. She would face anything but marriage.

Thecla’s story is preserved in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, an apocryphal story of Paul’s impact on a young virgin, Thecla, and her subsequent trials, adventures and spiritual leadership as his disciple. She infuriated many Church Fathers, including Tertullian, who griped that some Christians were using the example of Thecla to legitimize women’s roles in teaching and baptizing.

According to Acts, Thecla was a beautiful young woman of Iconium (now Konya, Turkey) whose life was transformed when she heard St. Paul preaching in the street beneath her window. She announced her intention to break off her engagement and to embrace a life of chastity. Her finance was furious. Her family was scandalized. They denounced her to the governor who had her arrested and condemned to death. Thecla was tied naked to a stake, but a miraculous thunderstorm put out the flames. She is saved. Once home, Thecla disguises herself as a youth and escapes to reunite with Paul and travel to Antioch.

While traveling, she is sexually assaulted by Alexander, a prominent man of Antioch. One account reads: “Repulsing the assault, she tears his cloak and knocks the wreath from his head. Alexander (the would-be ravisher) brings her before the magistrate who, despite the protests of the women of the city, again condemns Thecla to death, this time ad bestias. Pleading to remain a virgin until her death, she is taken in by ‘a certain rich queen, Tryphaena by name,” who lost her own daughter. (Tryphaena was the widow of Cotys, King of Thrace and a great-niece of the Emperor Claudius. In Romans 16:12, Paul sends greetings to a Tryphaena.) 

Thecla is allowed to return to Tryphaena. She rides a lioness (who licks her feet) and is paraded through the city. The next morning, Alexander comes for her and escorts her to the arena to die. There she is stripped and thrown to wild beasts. A lioness (presumably the one who licked her feet) protects her from the attacks of lions, bulls and bears. Thecla prays, and throws herself into a trench of water (an euripus) and baptizes herself. The water is full of ferocious and hungry seals. A cloud of fire covers her nakedness and kills the vicious seals. The women in the stands of the arena cast fragrant nard and balsam into the area, which had a pacifying effect on the remaining wild animals. The awestruck governor releases Thecla and she returns to the palace of Queen Tryphaena. Refusing all entreaties to stay with the queen, Thecla dresses in male clothing and sets out to find Paul. She tells him that she baptized herself, and had been commissioned by Christ to baptize and preach in his name. According to the story, Paul recognized her as a fellow apostle and encouraged her to preach the Gospel. Wherever she went, “a bright cloud conducted her on her journey.”

Thecla encouraged women to live a life of chastity and to follow the word of God. She returned home to find her finance had died and her mother indifferent to her preaching. She left, and in one version of her story, she dwelt in a cave in Seleucia Cilicia (southern Turkey) for 72 years and formed a monastic community of women, whose members she instructed “in the oracles of God.” 

In another version, Thecla passed the rest of her life in a rocky desert cave in the mountains near the town of Ma’aloula (Syria). She became a healer and performed many miracles. She remained persecuted, and men still conspired to rape and kill her. Just as she was about to be seized, Thecla cried out to God for help. A fissure opened in the stone walls of her cave and she disappeared. It is said that she went to Rome and lay down beside Paul’s tomb.

Her cave became an important pilgrimage site in early and medieval Christianity. Today visitors can still see Thecla’s cave and the spring that provided water for her. The nuns who live at the Mar Thecla monastery will tell you her story and show you the opening in the rock where the saint escaped.

There are many wonderful parts of St. Thecla’s story, beginning with her determination to live her life following her calling to evangelize, rather than accede to family or societal expectations. Her protection by animals, the public affirmation by groups of women, are also very positive. She was unashamed of her nakedness when she was led twice to the arena to die. She was proud of her body, her virginity, and her sole possession of it. The biggest surprise was her encouragement by St. Paul ( wives-be-subordinate-to-your-husbands), accepting her as a fellow apostle. The ugly, horrifying constant throughout her life is the desire by men to rape Thecla or kill her if she won’t submit to their authority. Men who are rapists do not believe that they are the problem–females (or males) who aroused them are at fault. What can Christianity do to change this perception?